Canaletto (1697-1768) is the painter who has memorialized the appearance of Venice of the early 18th century. Canaletto was a resourceful businessman and began his career as a scene painter for the stage, and painted backdrops in Venice for Vivaldi, and, in Rome, for Scarlatti. He was temperamentally not aligned with the emotionalism of Metastasio and Tiepolo, and preferred the rationalism of Longhi and Goldoni.
This dissatisfaction led to his renunciation of the theatre and his taking up, after his visit to Rome, the creation of veduta, that is, views from nature. In this, the painting of modern landscapes, he was influenced by Rome’s already century-old intellectually and morally advanced milieu that permitted the aesthetic revolution promulgated first in painting by Caravaggio and, even a century later, by Bellotto, its greater inclusion of reality and poetic image captured by the Roman landscape, so infused by the contradictions of desolation and grandeur as well as the contrasts of the sublimity of beauty and the presence of abject poverty.
Eventually Canaletto, wavering between the melodrama of theatre design and the real as well as imaginary views of landscape art, and also influenced further by a new awareness of northern landscape painters, began to include a romantic emotionalism in capturing the essence of archaeological vistas and ruins and antique and ancient subject-matter.
The process essentially culminated in Canaletto’s long search for stylistic certainty, and it is with this certainty that Canaletto became the first painter to be able to present on canvas, in an artistic achievement of remarkable magnitude, the actuality of Venice, in both its opulent and squalid aspects, with great naturalism, visual clarity, and masterful depiction of light. And like Vermeer, he made use of the camera obscura. Opulence, however, figures more frequently in his works, for, as a professional artist, he responded to the preferences of tourists, visitors, the nobility, art dealers, and others of wealth.
With the fluctuations in the capitalistic market, and with increasing demand for his genre of paintings by the British, and from his entrepreneurial preference to be in direct contact with his buying public, from 1746 on, Canaletto, at the age of fifty, spent ten years in England.
Although financially useful, the stay was not without difficulties. The English and Venetian skies are different, the former, more smooth, uniform, and cold than the Italian skies, thus reducing the precision of shadows and contrasts and reducing the profusion of colours. In addition, the city of London, an industrial city, differed markedly from Venice, and lacked the latter’s concentration of history and culture.
And so eventually, in his sixties, Canaletto returned to Venice, but the stylistic development that continues to be in evidence during his English period, had ended.